Role of Veterinary Staff in Pet Owner Grief Situations

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  • 0:01 Euthanasia
  • 0:33 Reactions to Pet Loss
  • 2:09 Stages of Grief
  • 5:08 Grief Counseling
  • 8:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

In this lesson, we will go over grief pertaining to the human-animal bond after euthanasia or any death. We will also look at what role veterinary staff play in this process.


This lesson is going to largely be a sad one. That's because there's no way around it. Veterinary medicine has a blessing and a curse, and it's called euthanasia, a procedure that painlessly ends the life of an animal in order to alleviate suffering.

I'm not going to go into the many reasons why it's a blessing and a curse; that's not what this lesson is about. Instead, we'll go over how euthanasia and death in general affect staff members and clientele and how best to deal with it.

Reactions to the Loss of a Pet

You must remember that to many people their pet is a family member. The pet isn't 'like' a family member. It is one, period. For them, the loss is extremely painful and significant and may be so for many years to come.

Everyone reacts to the loss of their pet in different ways. Some people may seem ambivalent to you. Perhaps they truly don't care but perhaps they are protecting themselves as well by pretending to be ambivalent. Others will be bawling. How they react depends on their culture, upbringing, values, and even age.

For instance, I'll never forget the range of emotions displayed at one euthanasia. It was a mother and father with three kids. The mother and father were crying, almost inconsolably. The oldest son, about 7, was, too. The middle son, about 4 to 5, wasn't crying at first. After about a minute or two of watching his older family members crying, he began to cry as well, likely because they were crying, not because he knew what was happening with the dog. The youngest child, a daughter of about 3, was in her own little world, playing a game the whole time, oblivious to what was happening around her.

Most people grieve the loss of their pets, even if they didn't see them as anything more than just another animal. The stages of grief that occur are not linear and overlap in some respects. Some stages might be skipped, some may be repeated, and they may not necessarily go in the order I'm about to present to you.

The Stages of Grief

Typically, the first stage of grief is denial. It's a coping mechanism. It is a defense mechanism from the shock of the loss. Denial is usually a short-lived response. Phrases like, 'Why?', 'How did this happen?', 'I don't believe that she's gone' are all clues to the fact that the person is likely in denial.

Another stage of grief is bargaining, a stage of grief where a person wants to help in a situation in exchange for giving something in return. Bargaining is actually a stage of grief that may occur before the pet dies. For example, a person may feel guilty and say to others or themselves something like, 'If she makes it through this, then I'll do anything.' Bargaining keeps some hope alive for the client even when a person on the sideline, like a veterinarian, may know otherwise.

Anger is another stage of grief. A person may become angry at a medical staff member, at themselves, at God, at the world, and just about anything or anyone else. Some people express anger in an obvious outward manner. They may bang their fists on the wall, turn blood red, etc. Others will experience anger very quietly.

Actually, anger turned inwards is another stage of grief known as guilt, guilt that they should have or could have done something more but did not and now their pet has died as a result. Clients will say things like, 'If only I had gone to the veterinarian sooner, she would still be alive.'

Sorrow or depression is a common stage of grief as well. It's a very deep level of the grieving process. Here, people don't seem to care much about anything and daily tasks become difficult. You may hear phrases like, 'What's the point of all of this?' Sorrow and depression may last for a very long time. Often times, loneliness accompanies this stage of grief. The loneliness need not be in the physical sense of being alone, but of being lonely even when around other people or animals.

I've known of people who, at this stage of grief, got other animals to try and ease their pain only to give them back soon after they realized that they still feel lonely, even with that new animal around.

The final stage of the grieving process is called acceptance, or resolution. Until sorrow and depression are experienced, acceptance is not likely to occur. Acceptance does not mean that a person feels happy-go-lucky as if nothing ever happened. That's not what this stage of grief is about. Acceptance is acknowledging the fact that the pet is indeed gone, that they will have to live with this loss for the rest of their life, and that there will be ups and downs. Acceptance and resolution means the person is going to try and move on with life. It helps the person remember the good times instead of focusing on the things that went wrong.

Grief Counseling

This brings me to my next point: grief counseling.

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